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Mar 31, 2011

Migrants, black people and other bilingual freaks

...bilinguals and multilinguals are associated with migrant populations, Aboriginal people, language freaks and other nutjobs who don't quite fit in...

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Greg Dickson writes:

A Facebook-‘like’ or YouTube-‘thumbs up’ to the recent Fully (sic) commenter, who, like us, believes Australians should be more linguistically aware. The commenter gave the example of when Dr. Haneef was taken in for questioning on charges of terrorism, the interviewing police learned he’d been using Urdu to talk to his brother over MSN Messenger. The police interviewers hadn’t heard of the Urdu language and this automatically made Haneef seem more suspicious to them.

It’s been recognised by many that Australia is a cripplingly monolingual country, plagued by the ‘monolingual mindset’ held by a majority of Australians who speak only English.  This is in contrast to the minority of us who are bilingual or multilingual.  It’s kinda funny but kinda sad, when you compare Australia with other countries who handle rampant multilingualism with aplomb.  It seems that many monolingual Australians perceive the ability to speak another language fluently as something akin to a magical power.  It’s a party trick that can be demanded of bilingual freaks at will.  “Say something in language X.  Go on, do it!  Listen everyone, so-and-so is speaking language X!”.  Or it’s a magical power used purely for evil as in the Haneef example given above.

It’s disappointing though, that Australia is naive regarding languages.  In Europe, where language borders and nation borders are never too far away, bilingualism and multilingualism is associated with managers, professionals, educated people and upstanding citizens.  Here, bilinguals and multilinguals are associated with migrant populations, Aboriginal people, language freaks and other nutjobs who don’t quite fit in.  What a pity.

A bilingual freak running the country? Australia says NO!

I saw evidence of the marginalisation of bilingualism yesterday when I gave a short training session on cross-cultural communication to a group of 13 people who work in tourism and aviation.  One of the first exercises was to see how much language diversity there was in the group. One woman put up her hand proudly and said she spoke English, French and Mauritian Creole.  Another was a bit more reluctant and said he grew up speaking Croatian.  After a pause, one of the four pilots sitting in a close-knit group, quietly admitted to being a Russian speaker.  I thought afterwards, why wouldn’t the bilingual people in the group shoot up their hand and proudly announce their other language/s?  Well, the answer is fairly easy – because our nation doesn’t value languages other than English very much.

I just wish it wasn’t that way, because looking at other somewhat-sensible nations, there’s no need for us to be this way.

Author’s note: Upon re-reading this post, I realised that I treat a fellow Fully (sic) poster as a party-trick-capable language freak.  Either I’m a hypocrite and should be more considerate, or the fact that someone can speak and be literate in Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Burmese, English, German and French is genuinely quite freakish.

Munanga —


AKA: Greg Dickson. Postdoc guy at University of Queensland with Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. Somewhere there, also a community linguist (Katherine region, NT) specialising in Aboriginal languages.

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27 thoughts on “Migrants, black people and other bilingual freaks

  1. Michelle Imison

    Great post – thanks, Greg; this touches upon one of the cultural issues about which I am very most passionate. Australians’ monolingualism is, as Holden points out, basically about laziness: why learn their language when they’ll have to learn mine anyway? (Let’s leave aside the cultural insights and mental/intellectual benefits and whatever else…)

    Living and working in non-(first langauge) English-speaking cultures has only increased my respect for those who do indeed take on the learning of English as an additional language, and my frustration at those here who not only proudly speak nothing else but see no reason to do so. (And an observation for those who complain about migrants here ‘not learning English’ and ‘keeping with their own kind’: overseas the very worst cultural non-integrators are usually… English-speaking, expat white people.)

    I think another reason is the fact that not only are the multi-lingual seen as possessing magical powers (as you put it), the learning of languages is perceived as something that requires some kind of super-intelligence. Notice how, in a media profile of a public figure, a mid-sentence reference to ‘…is fluent in four languages…’ is usually shorthand for ‘is really, really smart’ (or, in the case of someone who would otherwise be perceived as dumb – e.g. a model – a way of saying, ‘whodathunkit?!’). Yet many of those who are capable in more than one language are children: those who grow up in parts of the world or homes where multi-lingual facility is not only expected but quite normal. Not only can language learning be achieved without needing to be a Rhodes Scholar, *we* are actually the weird ones here, people!


    PS – I’m bilingual (English/French), am at various stages with two others (Bangla and Spanish) and am always open to the possibility of taking on others… 🙂

  2. bis

    Whilst learning a second language is a commendable individual pursuit, the extent to which the wider population is multilingual is, I would humbly opine, largely a function of economic necessity. In Australia there is no economic imperative for the average Joe to learn another language other than English.

    That is not to say there are no benefits to learning another language as there are indeed many. However, none of those benefits will, for most, never outweigh the benefits of being a native English speaker. The disincentive is twofold: firstly English is the official language of the economically prosperous country Australians are lucky to be born into and is compounded by English’s place as the world’s Lingua Franca.

    As an example, an Indonesian would firstly speak his native dialect at home and learn Bahasa Indonesian due to the economic imperative to compete in the wider society and should he wish to compete in the wider world he would learn English. This is a pattern repeated all through the developing world: native dialect, official national language, then maybe English. Every language acquisition , for most, the result of economic imperatives.

    As for Europe the close proximity of many affluent nations is a special case, however the language of choice for inter-communication is English. I would also venture that multilingualism is more prevalent in the smaller EU nations: the economic imperative at work again.

    For Australians, at the moment, their native and official language are one and that one also happens to be the World’s language. This will one day surely change, but until then those pontificating about how terrible it is to be surrounded by monolingualism whilst preening about how many languages they can speak will be looked upon by the wider populace as the epitome of middle class pretense.

  3. Stop N .W . O.


    Save Australia From The New World Order

  4. Aung Si

    Economic factors are often the sole criteria used by governments when deciding which languages to offer in schools, and economic factors can often be the primary motivators for individuals deciding to learn a new language. No argument there. The benefits of bi-/multilingualism, however, go far beyond being able to get a better job, as has been recently argued by Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel, in the top academic journal Science:

    “…children raised bilingually develop a specific type of cognitive benefit during infancy, and … bilingualism offers some protection against symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia in old people.”

    Bilingual children have a greater level of cognitive flexibility than their monolingual peers, mainly due to the fact that they have to be constantly selecting sounds, words and grammatical structures from one of their two (or more) languages. Such children perform better at psychological tasks designed to ‘trick’ subjects with rule changes and misleading information:

    “That selective attention involves a set of processes, termed executive function, that reside in the prefrontal cortex and develop especially over the first 5 years of life. Evidently, shifting frequently and unpredictably between hearing two parental languages made “bilingual” infants better able to cope with other unpredictable rule changes.”

    Bilingualism shows measurable positive effects later in life as well:

    “Among hundreds of elderly Canadian patients with a probable Alzheimer’s diagnosis, bilingual patients showed their first symptoms at an age 5 years older than did monolingual patients matched in other respects. Canadian life expectancy is
    79, hence a 5-year delay for people in their 70’s translates into a 47% decreased probability that they will develop Alzheimer’s symptoms at all before they die.”

    “How might this be? A short answer is the aphorism, “Use it or lose it.” Exercising body systems improves their function; not exercising them lets their function deteriorate. That’s why athletes and musicians practice. It’s also why Alzheimer’s patients are encouraged to play brain-challenging games like bridge or
    to solve Sudoku puzzles. But bilingualism is arguably the most constant practice possible for the brain… bilinguals impose extra exercise on their brain every minute of their waking hours. Consciously or unconsciously, the bilingual brain constantly has to decide: Shall I think, speak, or interpret sounds spoken to me according to the arbitrary rules of language A or language B?”

    These are just the known effects of bilingualism, that scientists can talk about with a degree of certainty. There may, of course, be many more such cognitive benefits that have not yet been studied in any detail. In any case, the above discussion is not meant to divert attention from Greg’s important point, which is that there is already a significant level of bi-/multilingualism in Australia. This appears not to be appreciated by either policy makers, or the mainstream public.

    The quotes used in this post are from Diamond, J. (2010) The benefits of multilingualism, Science, vol. 3302: pp. 332-333.

  5. drsmithy

    I have noticed that there is almost pride in not being able to correctly pronounce foreign words and place names, above and beyond our local dialect of English and its natural distortions of vowel sounds. In academia, I hasten to add.

    I can’t say I’ve ever encountered this, *anywhere*. Quite the opposite, if anything. The closest I’ve ever seen would be someone chuckling at themselves because they can’t pronounce a word.

    Australians’ monolingualism is, as Holden points out, basically about laziness: […]

    I think this is grossly unfair. Additional languages are – except for a few gifted individuals – very difficult (particularly for adults) to learn and maintain without frequent interaction with fluent speakers (ie: immersion). For most English speaking natives, this immersion is relatively difficult to find (all the Anglo countries are relatively geographically isolated), and for Australians probably the hardest of all.

    I can’t think of anyone I know who is multilingual that doesn’t fall into one or more of:
    * living somewhere with a native language different than their mother tongue
    * spent substantial time (multiple years) living in a non-English-speaking country
    * had parents send them to extra-curricular language classes from a very young age
    * has a job that requires being fluent in another language
    * mother/father/wife/girlfriend/etc isn’t a native English speaker
    * exceptionally intelligent

    The vast majority of Australians don’t fit into any of the above, because that’s just the way it is, not because they’re “lazy”.

  6. katierrr

    “It’s been recognised by many that Australia is a cripplingly monolingual country” (–Greg)

    Maybe this sentiment is part of the problem – how can Australia be described as monolingual when an abundance of languages are spoken here? There’s nothing monolingual about it – millions of NESB migrants, their descendants and Australia’s original inhabitants would testify to this… A statement like this presumes to speak on behalf of ‘Australians’, but excludes precisely that demographic it would defend.

    But it’s not just Greg; this is something I hear widely repeatedly, including at my sandstone tower: ‘We’re so monolingual it’s embarrassing’. What they mean is, ‘I am an Anglo-Australian and therefore statistically likely to be monolingual, and have furthermore just as hard a time fitting EFL speakers into the category ‘Australian’ as those who (like Senior above) do so for xenophobic reasons.’ It’s just one of those vaguely guilt-ridden things said by well-intentioned progressives without too much critical thought – maybe harmless, but worth flagging, I thought. This is not sarcasm, I’m sure it really is said with good faith; it’s just wrong-headed. Self-reflexivity can’t hurt our cause, can it?

    As a side note, I have taught languages and find that if adult students are reluctant to own up to speaking multiple languages it’s often because of a kind of modesty – a reluctance to attract the admiration, praise or jealousy of other students. I’ve interpreted that as a general valuation of linguistic dexterity combined with a fear of being the tall poppy… but that might be the case only in a LOTE classroom, and my interpretation may of course be wrong.

  7. Christian Döhler

    maybe the issue is located at a higher level. as michael clyne has pointed out many times: australia has a lot of multilingual potential due to its history as an immigrant country. it is quite obvious that virtually everyone here has parents (grandparents, great-grandparents and so on) from somewhere else in the world. consequently, there is a real lack of common history in the country. australians don’t like to be reminded of that, because they think of smug europeans showing off with their century-old-cathedrals. and, yes, there is certainly some truth to that. on the other hand, a lack of common history is not necessarily a bad thing. I am German and many of my countrymen would certainly like to forget a large part of German history.

    There is a flipside to this lack of common history. I feel, that many australians try to make up for this by ignoring what a potpourri they really are. they do this by glorifying the recent history (especially on ANZAC day) and by overemphasizing the English language and by appealing to an “australian identity”. seniors reply (above) exemplifies this rather well. especially politicians like to point to these “australian values”. I always ask people, but no one can define it any further than “vegemite” and “mateship”. the whole idea sounds a bit like americans trying to define themselves as WASPs.
    I don’t want to knock australians. things are not better in germany. german politicians like to speak of what they call “Leitkultur”. This is meant to be something that all germans share (sauerkraut? punctuality?). No one can define it, but of course it is always invoked in discussions about immigration. The last position that is alaways defended by “leitkultur” proponents is always the german language. Language seems to central role in ingroup/outgroup definitions. But to me the questions arises: If germans cannot agree on a “leitkultur” how could aussies ever agree on a set of distinctly “australian values”??

    it should be clear now which is the higher level that I mentioned in the beginning. it is a very narrow concept of a nation state (or nationalism?). it is a concept which does not tolerate multilingualism, let alone multiculturalism. this is old-fashioned thinking in germany, because the place has become an immigrant country over the last 40years. in australia such a mindset is a plain denial of the facts. australia has always been an immigrant country. I think the denial or denigration of multilingualism is just the flipside of this particular concept of a nation-state.

    by the way: does anyone know if the australian constitution mentions the English language? the U.S. constitution doesn’t. and the Grundgesetz doesn’t mention German. However, in the U.S. and in Germany it is the rightwingers that are trying to change it.

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